Development of Democracy as Political Theory

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The political theory we study today is founded upon the history of the ancient Greeks, dating all the way back to the era of Western political philosophy. Political theory is the nature and purpose of human society; it analyzes and explains how our society came about, how it works, and why it exists. We study political theory because it helps citizens to understand their relationship to their ruling government as well as identifies their role in society. Additionally, political theory examines moral claims and the way they are applied to politics. Moral claims – assumptions about a person’s internalized character and ethics, allows us to decipher between right and wrong and aids us in making proper judgements. This is especially important in politics so that our government can be built upon a strong, controlled, and just system. In ancient Greece, the laws of society were composed of customs and traditions, or nomos, and remained firm and consistent throughout time. George Klosko, author of History of Political Theory: An Introduction Volume I: Ancient and Medieval, states that, “As citizens of our countries, we have responsibilities to the citizens around us, our government, and our family and friends.” (Klosko) In addition to these duties, we are also guaranteed rights – more specifically, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as outlined in the United States Constitution. These responsibilities and rights of citizens, as well as the education and traditions of ancient governments will be discussed in more detail in the subsequent paragraphs as we compare and contrast the Athenian Model of the Polis and Plato’s “Just City”.

The Greeks of ancient times were all bound together by common language, their way of life, and religion. (Klosko) Just as in various countries around the world today, ancient Greece was composed of different forms of government – just not as many as those that exist today. The foundation of our nation’s government were built upon the political ideas established in ancient Greece. In an autocratic government, as seen in many middle eastern countries, an absolute ruler such as a monarch, chosen by their extraordinary, innate abilities, manages society. Two forms of government – authoritarian and totalitarian stem from this autocratic government. An authoritarian government is one in which a leader or a small group of leaders rules without being constitutionally responsible for the people or the laws. A totalitarian government, on the other hand, is one that confiscates all individual freedoms and designates the characteristics citizens’ lives to the authority of the nation. In an aristocratic/oligarchical government (preferred by Plato), the power of the nation is designated to a relatively small, wealthy class of rulers. In a democracy, the official form of government in the United States, the nation is ruled by many people. There are two forms of democracy – a direct democracy and a representative democracy. In a representative democracy, the type of democracy we have today, the rulers are elected representatives chosen to maintain a system of checks and balances. In a direct democracy, as seen in ancient Athens, the nation is ruled by anyone who wishes and decisions are made by the citizens.

In ancient Greece, specifically Athens and Sparta, the structure of their nation was referred to as a polis, which has many translations including “politics”, “politician”, and “police”. However, the most commonly used English derivative of the term polis, is “city-state”. In Athens, the polis is a purposely small, self-ruled institutional form of government that offers powerful common life for its citizens. The small size of Athen’s polis allows for citizens’ active involvement in public governmental affairs; this is known as a direct, participatory democracy – one in which citizens were actively involved in the nation’s government. Aristotle preferred the polis to be restricted in size as to provide an effective and well-organized community for its citizens. Within ancient Greece, each polis maintained their own laws and form of government within its own range of citizens. Specifically, in the Athenian model of the polis, there were two dimensions of the city-state: a popular assembly, and a social and educational institution.

Within Athen’s popular assembly, rulers of the city-state were citizens randomly chosen by form of a “lottery”. These randomly chosen leaders, would meet within this popular assembly to debate upon and discuss governmental affairs and national decisions. Because the rulers were not voted upon, elections played very little, if any, role in Athenian democracy. Athen’s popular assembly within the democracy is comprised of courts of law with very large juries. Just as the United States citizens’ rights and responsibilities are founded upon historical documents, the government of ancient Athens also relies on a written Constitution. Unlike our current democracy, there was no separation between church and state within Athenian society. Rather than having multiple religions that citizens are free to follow, ancient Athens had one state religion.

The goal of education in the Athenian polis was “to improve the lives of its population and to teach proper moral ideals and virtues.” (Klosko) Inside the social and educational institution of the polis, the virtues of the city-state were expressed through its laws. Because the polis of Athens was a powerful socializing force, the education creates a general idea of what the good life should be and what happiness is. The educational system of the polis was composed of 2 components: Education in the visual and literary arts, and physical training to prepare citizens for war. Greek law in Athens was primarily based upon the true moral principles that human beings are able to discover through experience and education. Because Greek laws were strongly and directly correlated with religion, the god(s) of the city-state were the ones who established the laws. Both the laws and the educational system of the polis consisted of the application of the existence of valid moral claims to the city-state.

In the Athenian city-state, citizenship was the center of communal life in the polis. Citizens exercised their active role in the participatory democracy by holding office such as that in a modern bureaucracy, serving on juries or being judges, serving direct rule which held a very specific meaning, and emphasizing a strong correlation between private and public life. In Athenian society, women had very few legal rights and lived in practical isolation from the political society. Women lived underneath the authority of men with their major function being to “produce legitimate offspring to inherit property.” (Klosko) The role of women was to give birth to and groom young children to become powerful leaders in the Athenian participatory democracy. However, women, slaves, and foreigners, were all denied full citizenship within the city-state.

In terms of Athenian citizens’ relationship to their city-state, Aristotle referred to human beings as “political animals” – meaning that they can only reach their full potential by living life within the poleis. Although in our modern democratic government today we will not be randomly selected to participate directly in our country’s government like the Athenian’s were, we may still be selected to participate indirectly in our government such as serving jury duty or voting in election polls to uphold our nation’s representatives. Within the polis, only male adults were considered citizens and were required to directly serve in the democratic government. The most important decisions concerning the nation’s affairs (decisions affecting the lives of all inhabitants) were made directly by citizens collectively after a debate within the popular assembly. Within the city-state, democratic citizenship in the participatory direct government was the center of life. All political institutions were composed of male citizens of proper age and citizens selected randomly through a lottery system. Political service in the democracy was a normal part, even a duty, of citizens’ lives.

Contrary to the Athenian model of the polis is Plato’s idea of a “Just City”. Plato believed virtue was a necessary characteristic in order to obtain happiness. Plato asserts that without a just environment, one composed of the various definitions of justice, no one can become virtuous. The main function of Plato’s “just city” is to maintain a “state-controlled system of education which was designed to raise everyone to their greatest level of virtue.” (Klosko)

The primary structure of Plato’s “just city” is a completely controlled environment. While the Athenian polis was a direct, participatory democracy, Plato’s “just city” was an oligarchy, preferred by Plato himself. Unlike Aristotle, Plato believed his “just city” should be composed of a large number of families and guarded by a large army. The main feature of Plato’s “just city” is its solid division of classes. Similar to our government’s 3 branches (the executive, legislative, and judicial), Plato’s “just city” is composed of Philosopher-kings, Auxiliaries, and producers. The only difference between our government’s branches and Plato’s branches is that the “just city” possesses a hierarchy. The philosopher-kings, or guardians, are the highest class that rule the city-state. The Auxiliaries are the second-class warriors that make up the city’s militia or army. The economic life in the “just city” is maintained by the producers, or the third-class merchants. Within the city, the guardians and the auxiliaries receive the same education. The primary reason for the separation of these classes is to ensure that the city’s best citizens will rule the nation. As Socrates portrays it, “Unless cities have philosophers as kings…unless political power and philosophy coincide…there can be no end to political troubles…or even to human troubles in general.” (Klosko) The two main reasons why it is ideal for philosophers to rule the city are because of their knowledge of both moral and metaphysical truth, as well as their superior characters. Unlike modern day politicians, philosophers do not care about wealth; rather, the dedicate all of their motivation towards internal pleasures of the mind. People in our modern-day society similar to Plato’s “philosophers” include artists, priests and followers of various religions, Catholic monks, and scientists. All of these previously mentioned occupations work towards improving the mind and soul, rather than seeking immediate gratifications and tangible pleasures. Contrary to our government’s separation of powers, Plato believes his “just city” can rule without a system of checks and balances because his philosopher-king rulers have no reason to abuse their power.

The paramount purpose of political institutions in Plato’s “just city” is the instillation of virtue on its citizens through education. Plato believes the city should shape the souls of its citizens after its own image and that only good men are to be modeled/imitated as example-setters. In Plato’s ideal city-state, education continues even after early education. Within his city, there is a designated program of higher education for philosophic-rulers to prepare them for their kingship and decipher between strong and weak rulers. The educational environment of the city works towards a goal of providing moral reform for its citizens. Unlike Aristotle’s idea of education, Plato emphasized education of the arts and steered away from physical training as in the polis. Plato shared the view with Socrates that moral beliefs should not rely on faith alone. Plato was against seeking poets for moral guidance, unless that poet was able to teach independent arguments for their views, similar to the goals of Socrates’ Socratic method. Plato emphasized that art has significant moral and social influences and that people are especially influenced by the art they are exposed to during early childhood. However, if poetry and other arts do not meet his standards, Plato believes they could inflict harmful effects and thus should be prohibited from the “just city”. Plato believed that education begins before birth while the mother does rhythmic exercises in the womb. Additionally, he believed that art and other aspects of education are especially effective during early childhood “when the soul is most malleable.” (Klosko) This is similar to our modern views of early education with the exception that, instead of the soul being malleable, the mind is most malleable during childhood. Plato compares the child’s soul to a sponge because it soaks up the educational environment it is raised in. In Plato’s curriculum schedule, philosophers begin their program of higher studies in mathematic dialectic, which lasts 15 years covering arithmetic, geometry, and harmonics (physics). After an additional 15 years of obtaining practical experience in the “just city”, education is finally complete at the age of 50. Similar to our nation’s modern-day views of media, Plato asserts that children’s attitudes towards violence may be negatively impacted by their exposure to violent TV shows and media sources. In order for education to achieve its goal of instilling virtue, Plato states that total control is demanded and advocates for “a system of conditioning that involves al aspects of the state.” (Klosko) Plato makes an analogy of a sick man and medication: A sick man who continues to take medications rather than altering his lifestyle that made him sick in the first place is similar to changing laws in a city that is corrupt at the center. A city’s corruption can be eliminated and replaced with a proper educational system only if the entire environment is reconstructed.

Plato mentions three basic types of humans: philosophical, competitive, and appetitive. The philosophical humans are those that focus on reasoning elements and primarily care about wisdom and truth. The competitive humans are those that focus on the spiritual element and emphasize the virtue of honor. The last class of humans, the appetitive type, are those that focus on money and immediate pleasures/gratifications. In Plato’s “just city”, female guardians performed the same job as the male guardians and all guardians possess women and children in common. Men were not to know who their children were and were not allowed to display excessive love for one woman in particular. Additionally, women were also not allowed to know who their children were as they were taken from them at birth. In Plato’s idealistic city, war was supported by universal rule of law and children joined the adults in battle. If any citizen displayed weakness, their status as a guardian or a philosopher-king was revoked.

In order to ensure that the city’s rulers actually possessed the outstanding characteristics intended for philosophers, they were carefully selected during youth and then tested at various stages throughout their lives. The quality of Plato’s “just city” was determined by the strength of its philosopher-kings’ desires to rules. The philosopher-kings of the city rule involuntarily as a duty because the benefits of philosophy were not guaranteed through political power.

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Development of Democracy as Political Theory. (2019, Feb 15). Retrieved July 14, 2024 , from

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